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19 January 2011
Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
This is one of those books I was kind of avoiding because it seemed like everyone was reading and reviewing it. I know that is a dumb reason to avoid a reading a book, but I also know I am not the only person who gets caught in that psychological trap. Fortunately, I found a cheap remaindered copy The Glass Roomwhen I visited Daedalus Books this past summer with Frances of Nonsuch Books and Teresa of Shelf Love. Once the book was in the house it seemed like I was one step closer to getting over my aversion to popular books, at least in this instance. I had picked it up a few times since I bought it and thought I might be in the mood to start it, but it wasn't until I focused in on the TBR pile in my nightstand that it really started to bubble to the surface. And I am so happy that it did.
It is easy to see why The Glass Room was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Despite a typo or two (see here), it is a marvelous novel that is hard to put down. At its essence it is a World War II story focusing on the lives of a group of people in Czechoslovakia. What makes the novel unique is that its organizing structure really is an organizing structure. When Viktor and Liesel Landauer are on their honeymoon in Venice they meet Rainer von Abt, a German modernist architect, whose design philosophy is right in line with the couple's desire to live in a house that looks to the future rather than the past. The result is a stunningly modern architectural gem which acts as far more than a piece of the backdrop for the events of the novel. The clean lines and pure spaces of the house not only provide a multifaceted and apt metaphor for many of the themes of the book, but the house also often plays a catalytic role in the lives of the people who live and work in it.
And the lives of the people that Mawer creates are interesting and joyous and tragic. He shows the many ways people learn to survive not only politics, war, and dislocation, but also how we survive personal upheaval and adversity. None of Mawer's main characters are paragons of virtue but they are all likable and so believably human.
I am often fascinated, perhaps morbidly so sometimes, by the fact that human lives are so fleeting and ephemeral. That regardless of the importance of any given thing, or feeling or event in our lives, they are but momentary blips on the map. They only matter to a relatively small circle of people and even then for only a brief period of time. The memory of the feeling or event event fading into oblivion faster than most of would care to admit. It is just a matter of decades before the Landauer House, so important to those who imagined it, built it, and lived in it, loses its original use and meaning and its history is defined and redefined by those who don't necessarily have the knowledge, or the right, to do so.
The life of the house before, during, and after the Landauers illustrates wonderfully the ways in which buildings change use and sometimes form over time. Think of seminaries that became grand houses, that became wartime hospitals, that became prep schools, that became something else. Sometimes those new uses suit the building and other times the fit is less than ideal.
I liked this book a lot on many different levels. Certainly not a perfect novel, but one that gives the reader a lot to think about and discuss. This really is a perfect book club book.
I know that I saw many other reviews out there in the blogosphere but I am having a hard time finding them now. For those of you who review lots of books you should go over to FyreFly's Book Blog and register your blog for the Book Blogs Search Engine. That way I can find your reviews more easily in the future.